Hayakawa: To begin with, most people know you from your work on Usagi Yojimbo, which deals very heavily with feudal Japanese history, culture, and values. Where did the idea for Usagi come from and how did your knowledge of feudal Japan influence it?
Sakai: All my knowledge comes from research - I'm third generation Japanese-American. I was born in Japan. My mom was born and raised in Japan - she's pretty much my best resource, actually. But everything I do is researched through books, movies, or wherever else I can get information. The story I'm working on now deals with one of the festivals in Japan, and IUm having a story built around that. So I'm looking for all books about that festival, how it began. I also did a story based upon Usagi's swords and did a lot of research into how sword-smiths built the ancient katana blades. So I took the reader from the process of melting the metal all the way up to the polishing, the grinding of the sword.
Hayakawa: Do you do a lot of historical research?
Sakai: I try to. A lot of the characters in Usagi are based upon actual historic figures. In fact, you asked about the origin of Usagi, he came about because I had originally wanted to do a straight historical comic book series based upon the life of Miyamoto Musashi, who was an actual seventeenth century samurai. And then one day I created up a rabbit tied at his ears, and I just loved the design. So instead of Miamoto Musashi, it became Miyamoto Usagi - usagi means rabbit, of course.
Hayakawa: I've noticed that you have sort of branched out with Space Usagi. I was wondering how that came about.
Sakai: There will be another Space Usagi miniseries in 1995. That came about because I like to draw dinosaurs; that's the real reason. It's just that I can't draw dinosaurs in Usagi's world, except for those lizards running around in the background. I wanted to draw dinosaurs and Usagi, so I came up with Space Usagi. With Space Usagi, I can do anything.
Hayakawa: How did you get involved with Sergio and Groo?
Sakai: Oh, let's see, we were friends for years and years, and one day he came up to me and said, "I'm starting a comic book; do you want to letter it?" And I said "sure." [laughter] I had never lettered a comic book before, professionally, so pretty much I learned while I did it. And we've been together for the past, what, ten years now. I also do the lettering for the Spiderman Sunday newspaper strip, and that came about primarily because I grew up knowing Stan Lee's name, and one day he called up and said, "do you want to letter Spiderman?" And I said "sure."
Hayakawa: That's great. Getting back to Usagi for a minute, I noticed that the way you deal with violence is that you don't shy away from it, but at the same time your comics are not gory, and parents can still feel comfortable about letting children read it. Is that something you consciously do, and if it is, how do you balance between complex storylines and stories that the family can read?
Sakai: When you're dealing with feudal Japan and the samurai warriors, you also have to deal with the violence, That's pretty much just a fact of life back then. And so I dealt with it the best I could. It's hard to say because the audience that I'm doing this for is primarily myself - whatever I want to do, I do. I make my own limits which are drawn according to my own taste. It's considered a general audience book, even though there is a lot of violence in it. I received the Parents' Choice Award. That's one of the awards that I'm most proud of... besides the Inkpot award.
Hayakawa: You've been to the Comic-Con for a lot of years now...
Sakai: Yes, many.
Hayakawa: What's your favorite memory?
Sakai: I don't know, there's just so many... I don't know if this is my favorite, but one of my favorite times is when Usagi first appeared (this is before the black-and-white boom) we had a hard time even giving them away because they were in black and white. A year later, the black-and-white boom was in full swing, and you could not find an issue of Usagi anywhere, not even for a hundred dollars!
Hayakawa: Wow. One last questions: you had mentioned the little lizards running around in the background. What's the deal with those guys?
Sakai: Ahh, let's see... There is a rational explanation. It's not only because I like to draw dinosaurs, but they are kind of the scavengers and pests in Usagi's world. The comic book is funny animals, and if I were to draw a dog or rat [as a pest], they could be potential people. I wanted to shy away from that.